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Russians Read Better Than They Count

Russians are well ahead of many other countries in terms of literacy and numeracy, but lag behind in computer skills, according to the OECD Survey of Adult Skills presented at the HSE on October 8, 2013

The OECD Survey of Adult Skills – PIAAC (Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies) – provides guidance for upgrading the adult education and training systems in participating countries. In Russia, a first-time participant of the project, the survey is conducted by the HSE Institute for Educational Studies with support from the HSE Centre for Basic Research and with participation of the Russian Ministry of Education and Science.

More than 157,000 respondents in the OECD and its partner countries were surveyed, including more than 5,000 adults aged 16 to 65 years from nearly a hundred communities in Russia. The PIAAC study takes into account socio-demographic characteristics such as gender, age, education, and occupation.

In addition to assessing literacy and numeracy levels, the study also monitors social intelligence, ie the ability to communicate and to work successfully as a team, and thus explores people’s ability to participate in various areas of activity, including one's job, family, and social life.

Project Terminology

The study looks at certain key competencies reflecting the ability to use sociocultural skills and tools, including digital technology, for managing information and for social interaction. The fundamental competences measured by the survey are literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology-rich environments (electronic media and the internet).

Literacy is defined as the ability to understand and use information from written texts to achieve one's social and other goals and to develop one’s knowledge and potential. Numeracy is understood as the ability to use, apply, interpret, and communicate mathematical information in various social contexts. Problem solving in technology-rich environments refers to the ability to use digital technology for obtaining information and for communication.

Some 50% of Russians Have Poor Computer Skills

The average literacy proficiency score in Russia (275) is higher than the average of OECD countries (273). Similar scores are reported in Flanders (Belgium), the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Estonia.

Adult reading proficiency is higher in Russia than in a number of countries with advanced educational systems such as Denmark (271), Germany and the U.S. (270 each), Austria (269), and France (262).

In a few countries, reading proficiency scores are significantly higher than in Russia; these include Japan, the absolute leader with a score of 296, Finland (288), the Netherlands (284), Australia (280), Sweden (279), and Norway (278).

The average numeracy score of 270 is not significantly different in Russia compared to the OECD countries' average of 269. Countries with higher numeracy scores include the same top performers – Japan (288) and Finland (282) – and also Belgium (280), the Netherlands (280), Sweden (279), Norway (278), and Slovakia and the Czech Republic (276 each). In terms of numeracy, Russia ranks similarly to Germany (272), Estonia (273), and Australia (268).

It is noted in the PIAAC’s key findings that "in most countries, significant shares of adults lack elementary computer skills, report no experience in using computers or lack confidence in their ability to use computers." In Russia, 48.5% of adults aged 16 to 65 fall into this category.

In Russia, 40.5% of adult respondents having at least minimal skills needed for computer-based testing were at the lowest proficiency level (one and below) in ​​problem solving in technology-rich environments. Note that a proficiency level of one means that the respondents should be able to confidently use computer applications to access information and solve simple problems.

More than a quarter (25.9%) of the Russian respondents demonstrated a high level of competence (two or three) in solving technology-related problems. Overall, however, Russians lag somewhat behind other developed countries in terms of the ability to use a wide range of applications in less familiar contexts.

"Of those respondents who took a computer-based test, some 39% are at levels two or three, suggesting that most adult Russians are at level one or below in terms of their proficiency in solving problems in technology-rich environments," the authors suggest (Graph 1).

Graph 1. Solving problems in technology-rich environments: OECD countries and Russia.

Higher Levels of Education Correlate with Better Skills

Researchers note three peaks of literacy (Graph 2): immediately after finishing general school when knowledge is still fresh; the final years of undergraduate studies when young people are focused on further education and career development; and then again at ages 45 to 49. Perhaps, this latter group includes the most highly educated and skilled adults; however, skill levels tend to decline with age.

Graph 2. Competencies and Education

The authors note that over the past 20 years, Russia has gone through major political and economic changes affecting all aspects of peoples' lives, including education.

The authors explain that those who are now aged 31 to 35 attended general school during the perestroika years when the old state collapsed and the new one was emerging; their overall lower literacy levels reflect the complexities faced by the educational system at that time (Graph 3).

However, this age group has good ICT skills as computers became part of everyday life in their teen years.

Graph 3. Literacy and Age Cohorts

Competencies and Qualifications

The study looks at four occupational groups with differing levels of qualifications and education.

Highly qualified occupations include senior managers and executives.

White-collar occupations are those requiring medium-level qualifications and a college education, eg office workers.

Blue-collar occupations require primary or secondary vocational training, eg mechanics or agricultural workers.

Unskilled occupations require no particular skills or training, eg couriers or janitors.

This part of the study reveals that lower qualifications correlate with slightly lower literacy and numeracy skills (Graph 4).

Graph 4. Qualifications and Literacy

Another interesting finding is that workers in unskilled occupations tend to have better literacy and numeracy skills than blue-collar workers in technical occupations.

Benefits of the Adult Skills Survey

From a pragmatic perspective, the PIAAC promotes the sharing of best practices across countries to enhance future educational outcomes and to find solutions to skills shortages.

The PIAAC findings help countries better understand how various factors such as age, education, and occupation contribute to levels of literacy and living standards, the authors conclude.


Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, October 08, 2013